Working Together During the Crisis

When I was asked to contribute to this blog, I wanted to sit down and write a piece full of professional assurance and effortless insight. Something pithy and quotable that captures a moment in higher education. But then I thought a little bit more about this particular moment in higher education and I am equal parts overwhelmed and terrified.

I have the great privilege to work for governors during this crisis and have been proud to see so many state leaders rising to this historic occasion and making tough decisions to protect the people in their state. Through all the chaos, my team at the National Governors Association is tasked with helping governors’ offices think about how to support higher education systems and the students they serve. Institutions are careening into online coursework, furloughing workers, struggling with federal guidance, and planning for every scenario for the upcoming year. Priorities of health and public safety have rightfully overshadowed all other concerns, but those of us in higher education have been focused on elevating the key role that institutions will play in recovery efforts. Through the seismic changes, students will need to be protected and quality education preserved. Past economic downturns have highlighted the strong ROI of higher education and marked an increase in enrollment. To be sure, this is by no means a typical economic downturn, and so our systems must respond even more creatively and quickly, all while their resources are severely constrained.

It’s easy to prognosticate about the longer-term effects, but we don’t know what the reality will be as we emerge from this crisis. The best that we can do is to prioritize and protect the core elements that we value in our higher education systems. I cling to the hope that we can help states consider issues of equity and access at a time when families’ struggles are compounded, and students are at even greater risk of falling through the cracks. I try to muster resources to look towards reskilling and upskilling needs while more than 22 million people still fill the unemployment rolls. We are forced to think about planning for institutional closures, every minute hoping that the plans don’t have to be implemented.

We are fighting against the rising tide of uncertainty, fear, and worst-case scenarios to try to provide some support for state leaders, and I’m exhausted. But every day, at moments during my endless cycle of Zoom meetings, I look into the faces of the rest of you—struggling beside me, intent that students aren’t left behind, that equity remains a primary goal, and that we give a voice to all of today’s students. Those students, and the governors that we advise, need all of us to plan for the unknown and to ask for help from each other. I have been truly humbled by the collaborative spirit that I have seen in the higher ed community. We don’t know what the next few months will bring, but I will continue to ask if the best practices that I am bringing to states serve the most vulnerable students and protect high-quality education. So, no matter what happens next, I will know that I am focused on things that really matter. That seems to be the best thing that we can do right now.

So, while my message is not one of assured expertise, it is one of camaraderie in this time of confusion and uncertainty. I will continue to look to all of you, open to every good idea and offer of collaboration. We can do this, though I know it will take every ounce of our talent and passion for this work. States, institutions, and students need every bit of help we can muster. We are in this together.